When deciding to go out on their own, many entrepreneurs look to duplicate the environment they just left. Ultimately, that may be achievable if you grow to a multi-national, 7,000-person agency, but when you’re starting with just a couple of partners – it’s a model for disaster. You have to have a different mindset.
Avoid Unnecessary Costs at all Costs
The biggest mistake is spending money you don’t have or taking on unnecessary debt. You don’t need a fancy office. In fact, you may not need an office at all. That rent payment comes straight out of your pocket. What clients are looking from a small agency is talent — not real estate. They are perfectly happy meeting you wherever you are or having you visit them.
When Tod Seisser, Steve Landsberg, and I started Grok, we worked out of our homes. Tod and Steve’s places were called “The Factory.” We called my loft, where we met with clients, “The Showroom.” Clients loved it. It was like going to an off-site for them. We finally knew it was time to rent space when my apartment became so crowded with clients during a meeting that the CMO had no choice but to take a private call in my bedroom. By then they had agreed to appoint us AOR so we had our rent covered.
Less is More
Another temptation to avoid is hiring people before you really need them.
It’s the difference between "nice to have" and "need to have." You need to be prepared to do whatever is necessary yourself. Going to Staples in the morning, meeting with the CEO of a client in the afternoon, and putting together decks at night — it’s all part of daily life as a startup.
There’s no room for hubris.
And when you do hire, do it conservatively – make sure that the jobs you create are sustainable.
More is More
When you get an assignment, even the smallest one, remember you are an unknown commodity. Act like you have something to prove because you do. If a client takes a chance on you, make sure they get rewarded. Over-deliver. Lose the parsimonious hourly-based mentality. Act like you’re pitching your existing clients’ business everyday. If you do this, you’ve got a real chance of being rewarded with more assignments. And this sounds so obvious, but when your clients are in a jam, help them out of it. I can’t tell you how many assignments and how much trust we’ve built by taking on projects other agencies turned down. They didn’t have enough people. They didn’t have enough time. They didn’t want to work weekends. Well, their loss was our gain. And growing with existing clients, organic growth, is the most efficient and most rewarding way to grow.
First Things First
Make sure you have the foundation in place before you start building the house. The easiest way to lose business is to take your eye off the existing business and focus too much on the future. Make sure you balance new growth with a firm commitment to continue delivering for the clients that took that first chance on you. Everything you produce, every meeting you attend, every contact you make is laying the foundation for future growth.
You Can’t Fake Culture
Building an agency culture is critical to continued growth and success. But that culture needs to be authentic. Your employees take the lead from you and how you interact with your partners. If your relationship with your partners is open, collegial, collaborative, respectful, and fun, your company culture will reflect that. Your work ethic, your principles, and your beliefs will attract the kind of people you want working for you. When your employees see that you truly care about building your client’s business, they will too. And then they will attract other like-minded talent. A great culture is contagious. It’s a magnet for great people and for great clients.